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Once a physicist: Anna Starkey

Anna Starkey is the creative director of We The Curious – an interactive science centre in Bristol, UK. She has degrees in physics and science communication, and a Bafta nomination for writing children's animation

What sparked your interest in physics? 
I always wanted to be an astronaut, ever since I was tiny. The reality is that I get sick just on a playground roundabout, let alone doing a G-force test, so I found a way to play in the cosmos by just thinking about it all instead. Fortunately I had an excellent teacher – Becky Parker, who is like a human supernova of enthusiasm for the subject. She was doing incredible things ñ taking the first school trips to CERN, way back before the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) became a famous experiment. I was lucky enough to visit the lab when I was 16, and from then I was hooked on the big ideas, the poetic language and visual world of particle physics. I remember loving Frank Close's Royal Institution Christmas lectures – The Cosmic Onion – and being addicted to BBC Horizon films. It was the big existential side of physics that really caught my imagination.

Did you ever consider an academic career, especially after your time as a UK particle physics outreach officer? 
I did briefly – as a teenager I had big plans to discover the Higgs boson. It was a huge privilege and delight to find myself later working as the UK outreach officer for particle physics at a time when the LHC was under construction and things were gearing up for communicating particle physics more widely before the big switch-on. But I never seriously considered an academic career for long because I have always been very interested in many different fields. At university I had already fallen into theatre, music and sketch comedy, so at that time I found the idea of being in academia a little restrictive in comparison.

How did you get interested in broadcasting and media? 
I was captivated by science on TV when I was growing up, so the notion of constructing beautiful films that made your knees go wobbly thinking about things, was always in my system. After my physics degree at Warwick University, I did a Master's in science communication at Imperial College London, which blew my world open. I got work experience at the BBC and straight away found myself working as a researcher on BBC Horizon, on a film about parallel universes. The director I worked for there, Malcolm Clark, is a real craftsman of image and story on screen, and it was my first encounter working directly with someone who thought in that way. I become very interested in storytelling, as well as the geeky physics of cameras and image-making. And then, through a series of unexpected events involving a chance meeting at a choir I was singing with in London, and pitching an animation idea based on Russell Stannard's Uncle Albert books, I ended up as a script editor at a children's TV animation company. I then became a writer, and spent the next 10 years doing all sorts in TV from voice directing to producing the BBC Proms.

What does your current role, as the creative director of Bristol's We The Curious interactive science centre, entail? 
I look after all the public-facing content – exhibitions, programmes, events, education – and I was asked to bring more of an arts approach and a fresh view on how science centres work. Science tends to be viewed as separate to culture somehow, which is total nonsense, and actually damaging I think, to our progress as a society. With a venue like We The Curious, located in the middle of an amazing creative city such as Bristol, I thought we have a great opportunity to do something about that. We also have a big responsibility to remove boundaries to anyone being able to get involved with science, as it belongs to us all and we urgently need to challenge stereotypes and open up the field. To this effect, I wrote a manifesto for building a "culture of curiosity". We're all about empowering people with the essence of scientific enquiry in their lives. A society of question-asking, curious people will be more connected, creative, compassionate, resilient. So my role is about the big picture of why we do what we do as a science centre, and then about how we deliver that in our daily interactions with people.

What are the projects you have planned in the coming years for the centre? 
We are super excited to have been awarded money from the Inspiring Science fund, the Wellcome Trust and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, to reimagine our ground-floor exhibition space and change the way we work as an organization, so we're at the start of a couple of years of real transformation. We're planning the first major exhibition based entirely on the questions of the people in a city. We're putting people and their curiosity at the heart of what we do – and we're going to be working with scientists, artists, community groups and a brilliant studio of exhibition architects, Kossmann de Jong, to create a beautiful and exciting space for everyone. We're also setting up new arts strands, bringing in different access points to science for different audiences, and also working with local universities and researchers to develop an Open City Lab, where people can participate in real scientific research in progress. We're having exciting conversations with researchers interested in this concept, from quantum computing to behavioural psychology.

How has your physics background been helpful in your work, if at all? 
Wherever I have gone in my work in the arts and culture sector, my physics degree has been an unexpected passport to jobs that you might not imagine – it seems to be a talking point in a very competitive world of work and gives me an interesting edge. More than that, I consider my physics background to be fundamental in the way I think about things and approach work. It's about being comfortable to explore big ideas that don't yet have answers. Operating at the edge of what is known, coming up with creative ways to explore that liminal zone is what fundamental physics is all about, and finding ways to start asking questions that get you a bit deeper into it. I think this had led me to be a bit of an agitator wherever I go, I realize that I always looking for a new way to do things – to bring more people into the conversation and open up ideas to a wider audience. I have found this applies whether I'm producing opera and classical music broadcasts or trying to find a way to start a conversation around quantum physics.

Any advice for today's students? 
Notice what makes you giddy with excitement and do that thing, or find ways to get close to doing that thing, as often as you can. And try to find time to share it with others. There is zero point in science, or indeed anything else, being done in a cultural vacuum. Don't get hung up on what anyone else is doing, if you're not sure what your path ahead looks like, just be curious and try stuff out.

  • www.wethecurious.org